That Time of Year Again...Top Five Team Visits Freedom Hall

Before joining the Big East, if UofL hosted a team ranked in the top 5 at Freedom Hall, it was a HUGE DEAL and, likely, UK.  I remember hosting the UNLV team with Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, an O'Bannon-led UCLA team, Pitino's UK teams, Purdue in the Keady days, and Florida in 2003.  The only conference match-ups against top ten teams were Cincinnati.  Every year, the biggest conference games were Memphis and Cinci, and a burgeoning rivalry with Marquette shortly before we jumped to the Big East.

Now, matchups with top ranked teams are so common that they are almost becoming routine.  Take tonight's game against Villanova.  The "other" Wildcats are ranked #4 in both new polls today.  They are fresh off a Final Four appearance and boast one of the Big East's best back courts led by Scottie Reynolds.  It is a white-out game.  Yet for all of that, doesn't it seem like this game isn't really that big of a deal?  I mean, I'm excited and all.  But I didn't really start thinking about this game until this weekend.  And a couple times yesterday, I had to remind myself that I couldn't stay late at work, that I would have to watch Chuck later this week on Tivo, that I would have to freeze those pieces of chicken from Kroger that were set to expire tonight because I COULDN'T COOK THEM WE HAD A HUGE GAME TONIGHT WOOOO.

We are lucky a game like this is becoming so routine.  That's not to say we are going to win easy, quite the contrary.  Tonight will be a big test, every possession will be important, the crowd will need to show up, Bilas will be there, etc. etc.  But, unlike in the 90s and first half of this decade, tonight is the first of a couple games like that in the next two months.  Not the one we look forward to all year.

The Courier-Journal previews the biggest storyline: strength v. strength, guards v. guards. Pitino even stole one of the jokes I was going to use:

Villanova brings its No.6 national ranking and a virtually endless supply of guards to face the University of Louisville in an early battle for first place in the Big East Conference.

The Wildcats (14-1, 3-0) don't have an imposing frontcourt that can punish the Cardinals (12-4, 3-0) in the paint. Instead, UofL will spend most of its time Monday night chasing 'Nova's four-guard lineup.

"They're very difficult," coach Rick Pitino said. "I think they have nine guards, and I think they've been there for seven years."

And in case you need another reminder about how last season ended:

Exaggerations aside, Villanova's backcourt is both deep and experienced. That doesn't bother UofL senior guard Jerry Smith. The Cards have beaten the Wildcats three straight games, including a 14-point win in the Big East Tournament semifinals last season.

Nova wouldn't lose another game until the Final Four, where they lost to North Carolina.  Seems like that would have been nice to mention, C.L.

Anyway, looks like they are good at 3's, so I wouldn't expect to see SS and TJ together much tonight.  Also, I have a feeling Delk will be seeing more minutes than Kuric because of the matchups and because we should be able to hold our own on the boards:

Defending the perimeter will be important for the Cards, as the Wildcats have six players shooting at least 35 percent on three-pointers. Reserve forward Taylor King leads the team at 46.6 percent on threes, and Stokes leads the team with 31 made.

You have to dig around to find anything about Villanova in the hometown paper (some sort of professional team lost kinda a big game this weekend) but their version of Rick Bozich says:

What they are is a team with some big-game tested veterans and a few impetuous players who are so confident in their ability that time and score are often irrelevant.

When all of the talent catches up with all of the experience, there really is no telling how good this team might become.

...

Every Villanova starter scored in double figures. Which suggests what is becoming obvious. This team is very hard to guard.

That sounds like both a tough team to beat and one that could easily fall behind on the road and not be able to dig out.

Overall, it should be another great game.  Pitino seems to be doing a lot more tinkering with line-ups early and the leaving guys on the floor for longer stretches when they are playing well.  I just assumed Sosa was injured when he didn't start the 2nd half the other night - and Knowles did - because that seems so out of the ordinary for Pitino's substitution patterns.

Could I interest you in some wildly off-the-mark predictions in bold? 

Kuric v. Delk:  Delk gets more minutes tonight because he is better at guarding the three than Kuric, and he won't be rebounding against bigger guys in their four-guard lineup.

Swop v. Buckles:  That debate seems settled for now.  Swop has turned on the rebounding switch and is not making as many "he says his favorite TV show is ESPN" plays.

SS v. TJ:  TJ will see more minutes tonight because SS will be mostly ineffective.  Wright's teams like to deny the ball to the post, so the offense will be more slash/kick and perimeter oriented than Pitino would like.  If SS doesn't get into it on offense, he suffers on defense, so TJ will be called on early and often. Also when SS does get it, he will dribble and one of their guards will come at him and knock the ball away.

Jerry v. PK:  Quietly shaping up as the toughest position to properly allocate minutes.  If Delk or Kuric don't produce, look for Jerry to slide to the 3 for some quality minutes tonight. 

Team v. Crowd:  The crowd will be hyped up, but I don't think I'm alone in being very bi-polar on this team.  Sometimes I find myself telling, uh, myself to be patient with them, to not get too mad because they are mostly young and lost two lottery picks and it is still early.  But then SS dribbles when he gets the ball down low and loses the ball, or misses a layup, or Sosa briefly reverts to Bad Edgar or Swop gets out muscled....it just seems like we are way too hard on this team.  Tonight's theme will be: missed three pointers.  Remember last year, @Nova, we were 3-25 from 3, even though most of those were good shots, we just couldn't buy a bucket.

So tonight I say we shoot more than 25 3's.  If we hit 10 or more, we win easily.  If we hit 5 or fewer, we lose by 10+. 

Final prediction?  Edgar and Delk each make 3 3's, Jerry hits 2 and PK hits a huge three with about 11 minutes left in the 2nd half and we end up winning by 9.

Or we lose by 7.  Can't decide. Either way, it's Big East basketball, a top 4 team, a white out, Bilas will be there.  And we get to do it all again when UConn, Georgetown, Cincinnati and Syracuse all come to town over the next few weeks.

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